General How to Eliminate Test Anxiety

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Ace any standardized admissions test, with top-tier academic coaching and effective tools to manage anxiety [Show summary]​

Bara Sapir has been providing test prep for over 20 years and is a pioneer in mindful test taking, implementing a holistic approach to the test prep process. She shares her best tips along with her comprehensive approach for success on any test.

Approaching test prep with mindfulness [Show notes]​

Welcome to the 427th episode of Admissions Straight Talk, thanks for joining me. Before I introduce our guest for today, I’d like to invite you to take advantage of Accepted’s price rollback. Last year in the midst of the pandemic, Accepted experimented with a price rollback and it was so popular that we are doing it again. Today and tomorrow you can purchase Accepted’s outstanding admissions advising and editing at 2017 prices. Just go to, choose the service that’s right for you and save. The rollback prices will only display in the shopping cart, not on the website page, but hurry this special ends at midnight July 21st Pacific time. Then it’s back to contemporary times and 2021 pricing.

Our guest today, Bara Sapir, is an internationally recognized expert in high performance coaching and personal empowerment and is a pioneer in mindful test taking and transformative test preparation. She has a BFA from the University of Michigan, a MA in education from the Jewish Theological Seminary, and a MA from the University of Michigan in art history, gender and holocaust studies. Well-resourced and experienced, she has had a 20+ year career in the test prep field with expertise in eliminating test anxiety, managing stress, building confidence and improving each student’s journey through the academic terrain. She founded City Test Prep, a hybrid test preparation company providing academic mastery, test taking strategy and techniques in holistic and mindful test taking.

Given your background in the arts and history, how on earth did you get involved in test prep? [2:26]​

It started when I was at University of Michigan. I was in the Fine Arts program and felt that I wanted to stay on to really take advantage of the university. I could have either gotten a double major or I could have stayed on to get a Master’s degree and be in the PhD program and thought, “Let me apply to PhD programs,” but to do that I needed to take a test prep course in order to take the GRE. And I did, I took the Princeton Review and felt like, “Oh, this is really interesting. This is really fun. I can do this too.” So I started working for Princeton Review and I saw once I started teaching how the work that I did as an artist, which is so much about being in the zone and being present and really allowing yourself to be just so fully immersed in the now so that you can produce what it is that you’re trying to express, was really relevant to students who were learning a lot of the material. So I started to bridge these worlds between the fine arts and being in the zone, and the students I was teaching in test prep.

How do you define mindfulness? What role does mindfulness play in effective test prep? [3:42]​

Right, it’s a very popular term right now, everyone is talking about mindfulness. Mindfulness is a mental state that is achieved to be in the present moment. It’s a practice of being in the present moment. When you’re in the moment, it doesn’t negate that there’s things that come into your mind. It’s being aware of the things that come into your mind whether it’s thinking about what came before or what came after or what your feelings are about whatever it is, whatever bodily sensations that come up. It’s acknowledging that those things come into play, but that at all times you have the practice and presence of acknowledging it but then coming back to the moment. The practice itself allows you to be in the moment even when you’re not actually in a mindful meditation. So in a lot of ways it’s similar to prayer because when you pray, you’re in that moment of harnessing that gratitude, that acknowledgement of being there. But other things can come into play so that when you’re actually not in prayer you’re learning how to actually be in the moment, especially when things come up that are stressful or uncomfortable or even happy or things to be grateful for. So it’s all practices and trainings of just allowing the moment to be a bigger burst of awareness. That’s a big definition, right?

That’s a big definition but I think the idea of focus is probably the essential kernel, am I correct? [5:32]​

Yes, focus because there’s going to be things that are always going to be vying for your attention, but allowing yourself to be in that focus, just acknowledging that we live in a world and always have where there are distractions but that we can be focused and allow that moment to open up to us so that we can be the self that we hope to be.

How does mindfulness affect test prep? [5:53]​

The way it affects test prep is a lot of students go into testing either feeling that they’re not good enough or they’re never good test takers or that clock is ticking or that person is sniffling or there’re skateboarders outside. Whatever it is, there’re things that come into play and by learning how to better harness the moment and improve focus or upgraded focus, you have a better chance of really accessing what you’ve learned, what you’ve retained, and to recall it in that moment. So it’s similar to playing a game of tennis. When you play a game of tennis or when you practice tennis, you learn the skills, then you practice. You can even have a ball being thrown at you and you practice that muscle movement on and on and on. And you get that muscle memory so that when you’re in a match itself, the inner game, what we’re playing in that moment, you’re not going to think, “Oh, I need to have my arm at this particular angle. What’s the percentage angle?” It’s really thinking about it in terms of being in that moment and knowing all the practice that brought you there, you’re going to be able to show up for yourself as long as you’re present.

Usually I tell my students, “No matter what, really your job at this point is to be present. You’ve already done all the work, you’ve done all the studying, you’ve done all of the building up for this moment, and now it’s about releasing and letting the moment unfold in front of you and showing up for it.”

Can you give any guidelines for how much time students should allocate for test prep? [7:36]​

Absolutely. The guidelines are that there are no guidelines. The way that a student can be informed about what they need to do is that you want to be armed with knowledge. The way that you’re armed with knowledge is you take a diagnostic test. Many of the test prep companies, the folks that actually write the tests, provide diagnostic tests that you can take. And so taking the diagnostic test allows you to take inventory of your strengths and weaknesses. We look at it not only in what a person gets correct or incorrect, but are they guessing? If you’re guessing and getting it right, you were lucky in that moment, you still need to look at it. But we’re also looking at how people answer and what the patterns are and are they making careless mistakes or are they making mistakes because they just are deficient in knowledge? Is it a timing issue? If they had all the time in the world, they’d be able to answer it, but they were under that pressure, and what’s their mindset? So we look at content mastery, test taking strategy, the mindset and time management and students need to look at that through a diagnostic way so that they can know. A student might need a week of prep or they might need three months of prep. So it really depends on the individual.

The big companies will have six week to two month courses, that’s usually how they’re set up because I think that’s the average time that it takes to really have a complete overhaul of what you need. But not everyone needs an overhaul, or sometimes people just need to fine tune and that fine tuning is really just stubborn and it’s really difficult to move past it and they might need a little bit more time. It really depends on what a student needs. So we generally say, think about it as six weeks to two months but we need to look at your diagnostic first to see really what it is that you need. And students need to think about taking the test at least twice.

Why should students be taking the test twice? [10:02]​

Typically it kind of works out whatever kinks there are, whatever is not quite working in the first test and it’s like, “Oh, this is what the test’s about.” As many times as someone can take a diagnostic, it’s being in the real test center and really feeling what that’s like that the second time is usually often a charm. If they can get it done the first time, that’s fantastic. But often students need to take it two or three times.

You mentioned mindset as one of the three things that the applicant needs to look at. By mindset do you mean the growth mindset and let’s say Dweck’s view or does it mean something else to you? [11:04]​

I love that you brought that up. It’s an amazing book and amazing work. And it’s really valuable for everyone, not just test takers. Growth Mindset for those of you who are listening now, has to do with a way, an approach to life. There’s a fixed mindset and there’s a growth mindset.

The fixed mindset is when you think that things are just absolute and this is just the way it is. So before when I mentioned that, we sometimes have students that say, “I’m not a good test taker,” that’s a fixed mindset. That’s a way of saying, “This is an accurate measure of my worth and my abilities of what I’m capable of doing.”

The growth mindset basically looks at life as more like a game and more like an opportunity for growth. So a growth mindset as compared to, “I’m not a good test taker,” would be someone who says, “Wow, that’s really interesting. I didn’t do so well on that but this is a really great opportunity for me to improve and for me to learn and for me to grow.” It’s just much more positive and open to the mystery and being open to what actually can happen.

So the mindset piece that I’m talking about, the growth and fixed mindset is part of this, but it also has to do with how are we going to deal with some of the symptoms that are coming up that have to do with negative self-belief patterns, negative limitations that we put on ourselves, any kind of phobias. Some people have phobias about math or about testing centers, not just about snakes and planes and water, but people have real clear issues with what these tests stand for or being judged in a particular way. Once we realize what the symptoms are, we’re able to address those.

The mindset is the overall umbrella, and Dweck’s work is an important piece of that and it’s really helping the student really look at themselves and see how they want to show up in the world and how they want to show up on the test? Most of these tests are metaphors of how to be in life. Once you learn how to crack being judged or evaluated against other people in whatever way that shows up, you can actually have this help you with interviews and help you with presentations and just moving through life. Especially growth mindset.

Do you have any advice for people taking a test, be it the LSAT, the GMAT, the MCAT, for the second or third time? [14:20]​

I have to say that all these tests are coachable. That’s the secret, they’re all really coachable. For the most part there is some knowledge or material that people need to understand. But a lot of it has to do with critical reasoning. It has to do with critical thinking and thinking through things. I’ve taken tests, you know these funny internet tests they have like “What Animal Are You?” or whatever it is. I’ve taken some, and I might not know the answer but because I’ve been so close with tests, I actually score really well on things I know nothing about because there’s a kind of ethos, there’s a kind of surfing that takes place of understand what are the purpose of these tests and what are they trying to get from the person who’s taking them? So getting a student in the mindset of critical thinking is super, super helpful, and it helps them beyond.

Like the verbal section of the MCAT, the verbal section completely simulates what’s happening for a medical student to diagnose and prescribe to a patient, like it’s simulating that kind of scenario through language. So we very much recommend that if a student is taking it a second, third or even a fourth time that they really look, they go back to the basics of that diagnostic and see where have they improved? Where have they not improved? Has something fallen by the wayside? What do they actually need to do? But it’s a really data driven process. It’s interesting because while it is data driven, it is a coachable test, and we also want students to trust their intuition and gut once they’ve trained it to be able to see the things that they are going to see.

For example, if you’ve got five answer choices let’s say, three of them are probably not going to be so great but two of them are going to be pretty good, and what’s the least wrong answer, especially when it’s verbal based? We want to get that sensitivity and familiarity down. So for the student that you’re talking about that everything is so great, I would probably challenge them on that, that there was something there that might not have been great and they might not want to take it again, but to get in line what kind of fine tuning they need to succeed and to really look at the whole scenario, what didn’t work and what are we going to make work this time? If it was a noise outside, well then we need to teach them how to avoid being distracted. So it’s really looking at all the pieces, what didn’t work, make it work better the next time.

Do you have any advice for nontraditional applicants who have been out of school for five or more years? [18:10]​

There’s a couple things that I usually will say to them and it comes down to the why. Why are you doing this, what is this about? And why are you seeking our help, and why should we give you the support? It’s not just that people come to us and they just sign up. We want to know what it is that people are about and why this is going to be important to them. Then honestly say, “You need to call people like Linda. You need to call an admissions consultant because you need to look at your entire candidacy to see what’s actually going on.” Now those are often the students that are most scared of math, and I do know that it’s popular and effective to tell students to take some math that’s on their transcript to show that they’re capable of doing the math. I often tell them that this is all coachable, but that you really want to get a team together to help you move through each part of the process; the interview, the essays, your application. Like who are you? What kind of extracurricular have you done? Why is this school going to be excited about you? And I don’t work on that piece of it. I’ll recommend if someone comes to me as a nontraditional student it’s like, “You really need to speak with an admissions consultant because the schools are going to be looking at you differently, and you want them to be excited about the experience and the knowledge that you’re bringing, especially if it’s a tangential field that you’re leveraging into a new study.

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